i’ll scratch your back…

As I start thinking about how to eventually market myself as an author, I’ve set myself to actually participating in social media. In case you’re wondering how that’s going for me, a misanthrope, here is an actual excerpt from my diary this morning:

“It’s nice to see how engaging on social media begets engagement on my own content, though even as I write that I’m filled with anxiety about being sucked into a miasmic echo chamber in which no art can be produced because all artists are preoccupied by the endless cycle of quipping and liking and being liked and at the end of the day, all we’re left with is, effectively, a circle jerk.

Is this basically the same thing as the patronage system of yore [Ed.: Yes, I did use the word ‘yore’ in my diary], though? Is it better, since artists have more agency over who they engage with, or worse, since it’s not as if most of us (“us”) are on Twitter at the behest of someone who’s paying us, only on the strength of the collective delusion that this is the only way to eventually get published? (And because it’s a good way, speaking of delusions, to feel productive without having to actually produce anything?)

Anyway, I haven’t had to shower yet today, and it’s fun to have a famous author acknowledge your existence / feel like you’re on the same plane, so let me just truck along with these endorphins and I’ll be copacetic.”

And in case you were further wondering how my manuscript is going, rest assured that I’m far too busy thrilling over having been followed by the NYT bestselling author I @ mentioned yesterday to do anything as pedestrian as actually write. (I did remove all of the quotation marks from my novel-in-progress to see if it would make it seem more literary. It did, but it also made it incomprehensible, and made me look like a dick, so then I put them all back. #crushingit)

As an aside, participating in Twitter as an aspiring author kind of feels like getting in line for the slaughter. Is it time to get canceled yet?

(Related: I’ve been combing and organizing this blog’s archives and have been genuinely alarmed by some of the language I casually threw around in my very early twenties, in 2011. Yikes, past self! I always suspected that this blog would be one of many reasons I can never run for elected office, but boy howdy, did I traffic in some tired tropes not long enough ago for it to be cute. Woof. Is this what the rest of my life as a white lady is going to be like? One cringe-inducing trip down memory lane after another?)

swallowing the world

“To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.” — Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children

Where you were when

When September 11th happened, I was twelve, a couple weeks into seventh grade. The footage on television was terrifying, but my classmates and I had never been to New York, and it felt consequential but not visceral. Our adults kept telling us that we needed to remember where we were that day “when we heard.”

They talked about JFK being assassinated and the Challenger exploding, and I didn’t feel like it mattered much that I, Dana Cass, was plugging in my curling iron in the Las Vegas suburbs when I heard a disarming report on the radio. But here I am nineteen years later, still conjuring the feeling of the bathroom tiles underneath my feet before I ran downstairs to turn on the television.

I’ve had some excellent history teachers who have taught me to properly interpret what I hear, see, and read, and of course now every podcaster whose closet has decent acoustics is out debunking one established symbol of history or another. For a long time, I’ve groused that we flatten history into a series of events that photograph well, and that in doing so we distort our understanding of how we got here and there.

Case in point: I remember Where I Was When Obama was elected for the first time (in a crowd of fellow first-time voters in the student center at Vassar, next to a friend who was weeping into a travel mug spiked with raspberry vodka) and Osama bin Laden was killed (nested amid a pile of books on my last standard-issue twin bed, writing the last mediocre paper of my college career, flipping between Microsoft Word and Safari open to CNN.com, the May breeze blowing through a window whose screen had been ripped open the prior weekend when campus security broke up our party and the attendees fled through my bedroom).

I also remember, bizarrely, applauding a radio broadcast that announced the conviction of Sandy Murphy for the murder of her casino billionaire husband Ted Binion following a trial so lurid it could only have taken place in Las Vegas, from the swimming pool in my best friend’s backyard in 2000, after my mom bought a couple pallets of water from Costco in a perfunctory nod to Y2K but before my next-door neighbor read aloud a poem her parents had been emailed called “How the Gore-inch Stole the Election,” during our morning carpool, and I learned about partisan politics for the first time.

Waiting for when

I don’t remember any one historic moment between November 2008 and spring 2011; I do remember that in 2010, I saw over someone’s shoulder what turned out to be a faux New York Times headline proclaiming “IRAQ WAR ENDS.” I had a brief remember-where-you-are moment before I realized it was fake, though it’s taken until recently for me to understand that the Iraq war wasn’t — isn’t — the kind of conflict that was going to be sewn up with a V-E Day.

(Neither was World War II, but my early education mostly elided over V-J Day and the war beyond Europe more broadly, especially where American moral clarity was in question. If it weren’t for crossword puzzles, I might still not know that Ethiopia was among the theaters in which WWII was fought.)

No soldier would dip a nurse into a symbol of war as something that begins, yes, and is terrible, but reliably ends. Part of me, having been steeped in the American tradition of moral certitude and ham-handed symbolism, is still waiting for that ending.

If it’s not on Twitter, is it even history?

The ubiquity of photography, and the ensuing barrage of images as indelible as the Zapruder film or the billowing orange contrails where the Challenger was supposed to be, has made history even more like a boiled frog that usual. I can’t figure out whether everything is a watershed moment or nothing is.

This isn’t a hot take. Every third person wringing their hands over the advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle shares this sentiment.

But I — wait for it; this is about to be a real stretch — recently read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (hence the epigraph) and think there’s something to be said for understanding the subtle gradations that color transitions from one saturated moment (Tahrir Square; a Trump rally) to the next, and how the mundanity of individual memory and experience better captures the zeitgeist as it evolves.

My excellent history teachers imparted to me the value of primary sources, extrapolating a cultural moment from individual lived experiences. We’re swimming in primary sources. History is Zapruder and contrails, but history is also a twelve-year-old plugging in her curling iron and a 21-year-old staring for the first time at the war machine in action.

(A few years later, when I was working as a proposal writer for a defense contractor, someone printed that photo of Obama and company in the Situation Room and taped it to my office door with “WAR ROOM” written on top in ballpoint, so that everyone passing would know that my officemate and I were hard at work chasing a new contract for the war machine itself.)

One-to-many

I remember that period in the ’90s when photomosaics became popular. The other week I saw an installation at the Barbican composed of labeled images from the ImageNet database that has enabled automated image recognition. It’s apt to compare the recognizability of a photomosaic (it’s the Mona Lisa! Made up of everyone who came to see the Mona Lisa this year! Etc.) to the anarchy of one arbitrary slice of the modern Internet.

But it only requires some imagination to extrapolate the implications of, e.g., the series of images of besuited men labeled “venture capitalist,” and similarly you don’t have to work hard to roll your eyes at a twelve-year-old white girl in her suburban bedroom who couldn’t have found Afghanistan on a map squinting her eyes shut to fix the memory of Where I Was When the bad men came to attack American values.

And here I am now, passing the “Prepare for Brexit” signs posted at bus stops on my way to my office, having left the US after the morning when I eavesdropped on a businesswoman opening her conference call with appropriate solemnity (“We’re all a little quiet this morning…”) in the airport lounge en route to Japan, where the friendly Japanese man who led us in entirely the wrong direction off the top of Mount Inari shook his fist and said “Trump!” at us fiercely when we told him we had come from New York. I read about Leonard Cohen’s death a few days later in a coffee shop in Shimokitazawa. Does it matter? Do I matter? Time will tell.

we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far

I can’t figure out why YouTube wants me to watch Carpool Karaoke and segments from the Ellen Show so badly. Most days, I watch two videos on YouTube: a yoga video from one of a few channels that I like, and one of two videos with a sequence of exercises for unlocking your lockjaw, both from a movie-handsome chiropractor who wears a wedding ring the size of a cuff scrounged from antiquity.

I know I should relax and learn to love the algorithm, but I don’t get it. I watched the Carpool Karaoke episode where they acted out “The Sound of Music” on the streets of L.A., and obviously I’ve watched every Taylor Swift interview Ellen has conducted, but beyond that, it’s all yoga and that chiropractor teaching me how to massage my suboccipitals, all the time.

(Pause to acknowledge how how precisely on-brand my YouTube tastes are. Second pause to glowingly recommend Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary, which you should absolutely catch before it wins Best Picture in a few hours.)

Current working conspiracy theories:

  1. Nobody binge-watches yoga classes or chiropractic instruction videos (though I did unearth what might be a subculture for watching videos of other people having chiropractic adjustments; just leaving that nugget there for you all to chew on so I don’t have to keep doing it alone) and the algorithm is trying to point me to videos that I’m likelier to binge-watch. Counterpoint: The algorithm isn’t pointing me to videos from Tony Awards performances from the ’70s and ’80s, so why is it even bothering?
  2. The chiropractor’s channel is several helpful videos on at-home exercises to alleviate various ailments, from TMJ syndrome (the technical term for “I can’t open my mouth because I grind my teeth so ferociously that I’ve nearly bitten through my night guard”) to tennis elbow, and… a video hawking the benefits of not vaccinating your children. The algorithm, which resents my affinity for woo-woo, is subtly trying to point me back toward science. If only the algorithm could see the look on my disgruntled face right now as I listen to a child cry in my vicinity.
  3. If you seek relief through stress through yoga and movie-handsome chiropractor videos, and also you’ve watched the original Broadway cast of Les Mis perform “One Day More” at the 1987 Tonys more than three times, your innate character is one that wants to watch Carpool Karaoke. Lie back and think of England (James Corden’s accent will help).
  • The problem with #3 is my niggling paranoia that one day the Internet is going to disappear and I won’t be able to do anything anymore. I usually think about this when I’m spinning around in a circle on the sidewalk trying to figure out where the blue dot is telling me to walk, but sometimes I wonder whether I could even choose my own reading material if left to my own devices (or, more precisely, without them).
  • Do I even know what I like anymore? (I guess I’ve been pondering this for a while.) I immediately forget most of what I read. I’d been blaming it on my attention span, but it occurred to me recently that maybe I just hate most of what I read. I slept terribly all last week because I started Tana French’s latest on Monday and I kept staying up long past my bedtime — reading, and then wondering if the shadows in my bedroom were intruders, and then wondering if the shadows in my bedroom were intruders, what seemingly insignificant incident from my childhood triggered their presence? Also, are all murder detectives shrewd and pithy calculators who can sniff out human weakness like the tasting notes in a fine wine, or just Irish ones? Also, how do you pronounce Gardai?
  • Anyway, it’s been nice to remember that books can be good. There are also only fifteen or so albums that have been released in the past decade that I actually want to listen to over and over again. (All of them are “1989.” Kidding! Maybe! See footnote [1].) I dutifully listen to my Spotify New Release Radar every Friday, but little speaks to me.
  • I guess the problem is that taste is eclectic. I was going to say that my taste is eclectic, but that seems unfair to everyone else who is more mercurial than predictable about what they like and don’t, which I assume is most people. How do you square that with predictive recommendation algorithms?
  • I read the first four Harry Potter books upwards of 40 times each as a child and then, while I waited for the next three, tried and discarded the canon of derivative books about boy wizards (sorry, Artemis Fowl), then gave up entirely on fantasy as a genre until I read The Night Circus, following which I wrote an honest-to-God fan letter to Erin Morgenstern. I love Tana French, yes, and I loved Gone Girl, but every subsequent entry into the unreliable-female-narrator genre is trash and I won’t be convinced otherwise. I am over misogyny as an artistic technique but I can’t stop reading Murakami, except 1Q84, which is a doorstop, not a novel, and I loved Super Sad True Love Story, though I hated Lake Success. I hit peak dystopia after the first Hunger Games and slogged through not only the rest of the trilogy but also the abominable Divergent series, which offended me so badly I swore off anything set in a future; but then the genre went highbrow, and I rolled my eyes but can’t say I wasn’t unmoored by Station Eleven (a book nobody should read until all cruise ships have been released from their coronavirus quarantines. Trust me) and Severance. I’ve already forgotten every novel I read in 2019 except Trust Exercise, even the ones that are also about bad people in positions of power, with and without clever plot devices. I’m a little devastated to admit that I think I’ve outgrown YA, though excited to eventually be ready to read Mrs. Dalloway.
  • TL;DR: My tastes are mercurial. I like books that speak to me. If I were to draw a thread between my favorite books, it’s protagonists that exist at a slight but impassable remove from reality: friendless boy wizards who make friends only to discover that friendlessness hardens into a character quality (cf. Harry Potter but also The Magicians), educated twentysomethings ashamed of their lack of ambition (Sweetbitter), educated twentysomethings ashamed of their lack of ambition even as they flee a global pandemic (Severance). I like books where the slight but impassable remove from reality is incidental, not the plot itself (ergo my dislike of Divergent, although I also prefer my books to read like they were edited at some point).
  • I’m not sure that’s a quality you can write into an algorithm. I like what I like.
  • So — where was I? YouTube’s seemingly baseless recommendations. I completely lost the plot there, didn’t I? How do I sew this back up into something? Conclusion: Art doesn’t need to be a buy-one-get-one situation; anomalies are precious. Half the reason I liked the Carpool Karaoke “Sound of Music” video was its sheer weirdness. No book that sets out trying to be Gone Girl can be as audacious. Dystopias were over before we entered into one. I’ve even developed an affinity for my anti-vax chiropractor and how he stares into my soul while he teaches me how to massage my masseter muscles. I don’t want YouTube to find me another chiropractor; I want YouTube to find me something radical that I can’t unsee. Is there a setting for that?
  • [1] 1989, yes, but also Badlands, 1000 Forms of Fear, Strange Desire, By The Way I Forgive You, Queen of the Clouds, 3 Rounds and a Sound, The Fool, Blue Neighbourhood… I’m sure there are a few more, but I can’t think of them now.

woo-woo girls

I’ve always felt like a basic bitch trapped in a dweeb’s body. I don’t understand how I can waste so much time on Instagram and still not know how to buy clothes that fit, roundbrush my hair into beachy waves, interior-decorate, etc. Maybe it’s because I approach anything that’s not, e.g., reading Proust with a keening sense of shame and thus never learn to do it properly. The trouble is that I’ve also never read Proust, either, putting me in this liminal space where I have neither Instagram followers nor highfalutin lit-bro cred.

The other day I listened to a podcast about intuitive eating recommended by a friend and fellow-traveler on the used-to-count-the-calories-in-a-packet-of-baby-carrots journey, an interview with the dietitian Evelyn Tribole. I was walking to work and practically crawling out of my skin with fear that my headphones would fail and the other commuters would find out that I was listening to something so woo-woo.

(It happens. Every train commuter has experienced someone’s headphones getting yanked out of the jack so all the sudden everyone is listening to Papa Roach together before nine in the morning.)

I lean on my intellect like a crutch to make up for my failure to thrive as an artist, and ascribing value to anything that seems like it could have been on Goop feels off-brand. Case in point: A couple years ago a friend gave me his copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a cult favorite workbook for creative artists who feel “blocked.” Julia Cameron is woo-woo embodied. Her method is premised on reviving the creativity you were born with, before your parents and teachers and coaches shamed it out of you, and so there are lots of exercises like writing letters to your childhood self and your shitty dance teacher, and arts and crafts, yada yada.

It took me fully three tries to complete the thing. It worked. Having shelved my ancient grudges with my sophomore year dance teacher and whoever judged the submissions for Vassar’s senior creative writing seminar, I am now a font of creativity. I’ve written probably four novels’ worth of content in the past year (unfortunately it’s the same five chapters of one novel, over and over again…).

Yet I resent feeling like the caricature of a self-involved white woman, hell-bent on rearranging the universe to accommodate myself at the center. Every morning I hunch over my Julia Cameron-prescribed “morning pages,” a three-page, handwritten ramble of whatever’s on my mind (I hate my novel, I love my novel, I hate my job, I love my job, I hate living abroad, I love living abroad, I should learn to garden, don’t forget to buy toilet paper, etc., etc.), afraid that someone’s going to see me engaging in my interior life. I listened to the intuitive eating podcast while I walked to work, blisteringly aware of the irony of being one wealthy woman listening to another wealthy woman telling me how to coddle myself into being able to enjoy the culinary riches on offer in our rarefied world while I swerve to avoid tripping on the rough sleepers who shelter in tents on High Holborn.

Years ago, as a middling dancer at my performing arts high school, I made peace with my mediocrity by reminding myself that I was smarter than the girls who got cast when I didn’t. (It was a real blow to my ego when I went to Vassar and lost out on roles to girls who were blowing my undisciplined ass out of the water academically and artistically.) I’m not a successful artist. I’m still low-key obsessed with the idea of visible abs. I rationalize my failures by positing self-care as lowbrow.

And the only reason that I’m introspective enough to recognize any of this is because I did Julia Cameron three times!

P.S. Honestly, do Julia Cameron. She’s so good. I hate her. But she’s so good.

P.P.S. Now that I’ve finished self-flagellating, another woo-woo thing I’ve been really into lately is yin yoga videos on YouTube. Yin yoga is the kind of yoga where you hold poses for like a hundred years, until you’re so bored you want to claw your own eyes out. I think this is supposed to be good for your chill, or something. On my favorite channel, Yoga With Kassandra, you can even do yin yoga where you repeat “affirmations” to yourself, and when you’re done you feel so chillaxed that you forget that you’re a monumental waste of space.